3D printing promises to change the way the construction industry operates by making the building process faster, cheaper and less wasteful. But as exciting as developments worldwide have been in the world of 3D printing, it’ll be a while before it becomes the norm.
Calling it 3D printing makes it sound like you just set up a laser jet in your office, and a house magically comes out. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. The process is similar to printing, where a large arm moves around to reproduce a digital file. However, the end product is a solid, concrete object that can be used to build all kinds of structures. A concrete composite mixture is fused by lasers coming out of the arm to create a substance that is thicker and faster-drying than regular concrete. Which means not only can you make the parts of a house faster, you can create hollow, curved concrete. The physics of concrete production made this previously impossible, meaning curved walls couldn’t immediately include space for wiring and insulation. The pieces are built individually then assembled into a final structure, often within as little as 24 hours. So obviously the promise for the future is great. But is it ready to come online?
Perhaps the most prolific successes with 3D printing have come from the Chinese firm Winsun. Winsun built ten 3D printed houses in a day earlier this year, for about $5,000 per house. Before that, they’d successfully used 3D printing to construct a five-story apartment building, and an 11,840 square foot villa, and are working on using 3D printing technology to construct an office building. In Amsterdam, a sort of 3D printing lab is going up on the side of a canal at the 3D Print Canal House. Here developers are not only trying to 3D print the house, but also the components, furniture and everything else that goes into a project. In Dubai, the Museum of the Future is planning a series of 3D printed office buildings. And in both Europe and America, researchers are trying to completely automate the process by developing robots to put the pieces together. So the day isn’t far off when many elements of a construction project will be made up of machines or otherwise automated.
There is further reason to be optimistic about the future of 3D printing in the construction industry: It’s going to save construction businesses a lot of time, and even more money. Winsun – the Chinese firm that’s already cranking out 3D printed houses – claims to save 50-80% on labor costs, 30-60% of construction waste, and 50-70% of construction time. In real dollars, that breaks down to about $44.75 per square foot. Now those numbers might have you scouring the Internet looking for the first 3D printer you can buy, but be forewarned: Even the most commercially-marketed versions of construction-ready 3D printers are still in the prototype phase. And local building codes aren’t even close to catching up to the 3D printing technology. The most frequently cited and commercially marketed 3D construction printer is the Apis Cor. Though no pricing figures are available, a quote on Apis Cor’s website says: “This printer doesn’t have any massive and hard-to-install railings, on which it could move around the site, yet even that doesn’t limit its possibilities–from a single point of construction it can build up to 192 square meters of lodging with almost no limitations in height. Ecologists may also feel quite enthusiastic about this machine, as it doesn’t leave any construction waste and consumes only eight kilowatts of energy–as much as five working teapots.” So not only will 3D printing build faster, it’ll build greener too. There are, of course, drawbacks: One small error in a digital file can lead to a very expensive series of errors in the printing. The printers are large (some as tall as 20 feet) and will require complicated transportation similar to heavy equipment. And there will be the obvious loss of construction jobs as manual tasks are taken over by machines. But this isn’t the first industry to see such setbacks. If early successes are any indication, 3D printing will be how houses are manufactured in the latter part of this century. And while the promises are great, the technology isn’t quite there yet. But hold on, be patient, and soon your construction firm can join the revolution as well. But for now, your employees can rest easy.